By Mike Zwerin
27 September 2001 - In his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, before
he had ever "even once" sat next to a white person, 20 year
old Ornette Coleman was playing the saxophone in a rhythm and blues
club. He saw drunken women and men cut each other up, and women beat
up their husbands for spending the family's money on booze and
gambling. He told his mother: "Oh mother, I don't want to play
this kind of music any more. There's all this violence. And the music
is inspiring them to do it."
"What's wrong with
you?" his mother replied: "What do you want? "People to
pay you for your soul?"
A light went on in his brain.
Although he could not say it in so many words at the time, that was
exactly what he wanted. It so happened that one of his friends could
play anything Charlie Parker played note-for-note. The guy "would
sit me down and I'd listen to bebop for hours. 'Oh yes!' I thought:
'This is the music that will take me away from sin and corruption.'
Well, it turned out I never got to play that music." .
a century later, now 71, Coleman was recalling his past in his suite
in the ritzy Hotel Meurice across the street from the Tuilleries
Gardens. He was here last week as this year's winner in the music
category of the Praemium Imperiale awards from the Japan Art
Association; a prize worth 15 million yen, 900, 000 French Francs, or
about $140,000. (Author Arthur Miller is another recipient.)
prestigious award was given "under the high patronage of his
Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi of Japan," and would be
presented to Coleman by former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre,
who is on the board of the Japan Art Association. A planned gala
ceremony in the Galerie des Glaces du Chateau de Versailles
was canceled after the disasters in New York and Washington. Past
awards have been given to the likes of Pierre Boulez, Frank Gehry,
Robert Rauschenberg, John Gielgud and Federico Fellini. Coleman has
also, in 1994, won a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant,"
also in six figures.
Arriving in Los Angeles in the early
'50s brimming with soul-saving bebop, his condition was somewhat
different: "I needed clothes and shoes and I probably needed a
bath." When he went to hear Charlie Parker in the Tiffany Club, "they
said, 'get out of here.' So I stood on the sidewalk and listened."
had learned the repertoire. For sure, he knew the difficult "Donna
Lee." Knew it "backwards." Playing it while sitting-in
with "some of the founders of bebop" - he prefers no names -
"one by one they put their instruments down and left me up there
playing by myself. Which destroyed me. My heart was broken. They
thought I was crazy. I knew I could play with these guys, but they
didn't want to play with me. I really knew "Donna Lee" and I
was playing it correctly, but I was playing it my way. I was really
dedicated, I was trying to get away from playing music that made
people beat each other up. And I got beat up for doing it. I felt like
they were punching me in the face, kicking me in the butt. Eventually,
I kind of found a way not to have this happen all the time."
the following years, when it was only some of the time, Charles Mingus
said: "Ornette just pushes the melody out of line here and there.
Trouble is he can't play it straight." Coleman did not want to
play anywhere near anything considered "straight." He was in
the process of learning exactly how to push things "out of line."
He would begin a tune by playing the melody in, say, the key of C,
then go into various levels of abstract variations with improvised
modulations and time changes in tandem with his rhythm section (most
notably Charlie Haden, bass, and Billy Higgins, drums). They'd finish
by playing the same line in the key of E-flat or upside-down or
backwards. This was called "Free Jazz." While he said: "I
never said I was playing free anything." Like prior major
movements in jazz, it was considered a threat to organized music
(listen to "Tomorrow Is The Question" (Atlantic, 1959).
Coleman's days as a threat to society officially ended in 1959 in The
Five Spot Cafe on The Bowery when Leonard Bernstein hugged him on the
His "Skies Of America" performed with
the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra opened a multi-million dollar
culture center in his home town. He wrote "Architecture in
Motion," a harmolodic ballet. Harmolodics is a system he
describes: "Music is not a style. Music is ideas. In any normal
style, you have to play certain notes in certain places. You play in
that style only and try to make people believe that style is more
important than other styles. Which removes you from the idea. With
harmolodics you go directly to the idea."
sound tracks for the films Naked Lunch and
Conrad Rooks's Chappaqua;
recorded "Song X" with Pat Metheny, "Virgin Beauty"
with Jerry Garcia and the remarkable live trio album, "At The
'Golden Circle' Stockholm." He wrote string and woodwind
quartets. Shirley Clark shot a documentary called Ornette: Made In
America. He learned to play the trumpet and the violin. Together
with his son (and manager and drummer) Denardo, he has recently built
a recording studio and rehearsal complex called Harmolodic on 125th
Street, in Harlem.
Along the way, he has, said the quiet and
modest but decidedly assuming Coleman, "learned some things:"
"This woman singer from Iran was telling me the words
of a song from her country. I said, 'okay, now, sing it.' And she sang
it and it was identical to the way she had spoken it. How many people
are aware that there is a song form that is no different from the way
people talk? That's got to be some advanced grammar. The grammar of a
song keeps you grounded. If you could play free of grammar you
wouldn't have that problem. If only you could find someone to play
"The problem we all suffer from as musicians
is we use information we have been given and try to make music from it
without questioning what our instrument is capable of."
good thing about music is that there's a lot of room to make your own
mistakes. If you can find out what a mistake is." He's been
listening to "indigenous music;" music from China, Iran,
and Mongolia: "One day I'm going to get a group of indigenous
musicians and put them together with harmolodics and let them play
exactly what they are already playing. Yes, that's a logical step for
me." "The things you hear me say today," he told the
public relations woman who was auditing his string of interviews, "you're
going to hear me take them all back."
Essential Jazz Albums of
the 20th Century
Official Harmolodic Web Site
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of
several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.